Ep 9: Choosing to Challenge: Women leading the way

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New research has shown how the pandemic has disproportionally affected women across the board. In our latest episode, Anilisa Sainani, RBC’s Chief Accountant and Jas Hothi, EY Partner candidly share the challenges of work-life balance in our new remote world, the key to overcoming imposter syndrome and the fine balance of building male allies without alienating them. As Canada’s 2020 Top 40 under 40 honorees, they speak to the power of mentorship and the influence of their immigrant experience on where they are today

TRANSCRIPT

Haritha:

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” Welcome to the Ascend Canada podcast. And I’m your host, Haritha Murthy. Maya Angelou might have said those powerful words years ago, but they are still so relevant. We recently celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th to recognize women’s achievements and move the dial on women’s equality. The 2021 theme is ‘Choose to Challenge’ because a challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change. As a special tribute to International Women’s Day, I’m thrilled to host two very special guests on this episode who definitely choose to challenge. These women leaders are creating impact in their fields, making a difference in their communities, standing up for inclusion, and they were both recipients of the prestigious Canada’s Top 40 Under 40 in 2020.

Haritha:

Our first guest, Anilisa Sainani, is Vice President and Chief Accountant at the Royal Bank of Canada. She’s a champion for diversity and inclusion and is actively involved in the community. Our second guest is Jas Hothi, Partner and National Practice Leader at EY Canada. She’s also the exact sponsor of EY’s Canada’s Professional Women’s Network and a board of director of the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Jas, Anilisa, thank you so much for joining me today.

Jas:

Thanks, Haritha. It’s an honor to be a part of the Ascend Organization, especially during one of my personal favorite months where we’re reminded to celebrate women. Thank you, Haritha, and to the entire team at the Ascend Organization for making this happen.

Anilisa:

I couldn’t agree more. I’m so excited to participate today and be here with all of you.

Haritha:

Thank you both. I can’t believe we’re one year into the pandemic already. And with many of us who are working from home, we’ve had to deal with redefined roles and the blurry work-life balance. Anilisa, how has this journey been for you personally?

Anilisa:

Well, first, I can’t understate how lucky I’ve been throughout the pandemic and how much I’m grateful for. But that doesn’t mean it has been easy at all. And I think that’s true for everyone. You’re probably listening to this webcast from your living room, the same place where we’ve all been lodged for the last year. And all the stress relief, all the outlets that we had like going to the gym, seeing our friends, for me, shopping, it feels like they’re so far, out of reach. And so like many of you, I have a young kiddo at home. He needs a lot of support. And when I’m helping him log into class or cook his lunch or just playing with him, my inbox blows up. And alternatively, if I’m on a call, there’s always something that he needs for me to do that I just can’t do in that moment.

Anilisa:

And so when you have to be a full-time employee and a full-time teacher, no hours were added to the day, but all those demands were. And so for me, the toughest thing has been the constant feeling of being torn between the worlds and the lives and the constant guilt in all honesty that comes with it. But like everything, it’s been a journey, a year in. Have I perfected it, developed a formula? No, far from it, but I’ve definitely learned to be kinder to myself, to be honest about what kind of leader I want to be, what kind of mother I want to be. And I’ve used that as my compass to decide where and how to spend my time.

Anilisa:

And so I’ll talk about this to anybody who will listen. So my team, my colleagues, all of you know that you’re not alone, we’re all in it together, and we all have each other’s backs. So I prepared to do, and we do this at work all the time, little things like no meetings during lunchtime, starting calls by sharing our COVID crazy stories, checking in on how people are doing, that sort of stuff. And we have to bring this to the surface, empower everyone to find the solution that works for them because that solution is going to be different for everybody, too.

Haritha:

You’re right, Anilisa. We’re in this together and we’ll continue to learn as we go. I personally block off my calendar during lunch. And I know there’s also a similar push for meetingless Fridays, but I also think a lot of this has to come from the top. On that note, Jas, as a senior leader working with numerous teams and women with kids, how are you enabling these women manage their dynamic role?

Jas:

Haritha, as I was thinking about this. The quote that came to mind was, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And I try to lead with that in mind. So the most important thing any of us can do is put humans at the heart of our leadership. And that means different things for different groups, including women team members with children. But for me, that came down to a couple of simple things, shifting the focus from what we need to achieve to what people need to thrive. So start with asking the right questions. We don’t know what we don’t know. Take time to understand what someone has on their plate and that makes you an ally. So how are you really? What’s most distracting for you? What can I do to support you more? All of these questions led us to developing a team charter together.

Jas:

And that was kind of my way of level setting on expectations, walking the talk and setting, as well as respecting boundaries. And we got really granular. So things like no emails from 7:00 PM to 7:00 AM or over the weekend, shortening calls to 15 minutes, 25 minutes. We have team mindfulness sessions built in, even a team step challenge. Small things that added up to a monumental difference. The other piece is making it okay to be real. So that means, for me, being open about what my personal challenges are, creating a safe space for every team member to do the same. So the idea here really was leading with openness myself. I hope to encourage other women, especially mothers in particular, to feel comfortable doing the same. To me, that’s how we cultivate a sense of trust. And as we know, trust is everything in a high performing team.

Anilisa:

Jas, I think you made a really important point there. We all have different priorities. And so, in your team charter, it’s designed with the flexibility to acknowledge that yeah, women who have kids or mothers need the flexibility to take care of their children. But that’s definitely not to say that many others have their own needs, which are equally important, be that your parents, your neighbors, your dog, your cousins, your friends, and most importantly yourself. And so, setting those boundaries no matter what the world you’re living in is we all have very real needs that we can all help each other accommodate.

Jas:

Actually, you bring up a really good point. One of the ecosystem we’re in, we have our teams, we have our peers, but we have our leaders. And one of my direct leaders was caring for both her parents who she lost during the pandemic. And so it was actually checking in on her as well, right? And that’s not something that I think a lot of our leaders get. So it was kind of looking side, up, down, kind of everyone you’re working with to say, “We’re in this together, nobody has it figured out, and we’re here for each other.”

Haritha:

I couldn’t agree more because I feel throughout this pandemic, I’ve heard one word that takes center stage and that’s empathy. But I love how you both speak of trust because I feel with trust, there’s automatically empathy, accountability and flexibility, all combined. And I can speak to this because at the start of the pandemic, I was doing grocery runs for elderly folks within my community and Loblaws or any of these other grocery stores had fixed time slots where you had to go pick up and come. So I had to really schedule all those pickups during the day, during my work day. And that trust component was what helped me get going because my team knew that, “Oh. Haritha will get this done regardless of the flexible hours that she’s working.” And one thing I’ve realized is this pandemic has really taught as that everyone is going through their own unique struggles, Anilisa, your point. And everyone is prone to being vulnerable.

Haritha:

This brings me to a topic around the confidence gap that is well-documented by various studies across the globe. We know that men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them*. So this form of impostor syndrome I feel is it seems to disproportionately affect women. This question’s to both of you, have you experienced this at any point in your careers?

Anilisa:

Short answer, yes. Let me tell you a short story. Let me share with you how I became an executive at RBC. And it was almost four years ago to the day because it was International Women’s Day. And our group controller, Catherine, asked if I’d join her for a walk down to the convention center where RBC’s annual event was being held. And on the walk down, she mentioned that she was thinking of creating a new executive role on the team and might I be interested.

Anilisa:

And for those of you who are in Toronto, just let me set the scene here. We’re standing at the corner of Simcoe and Lakeshore, waiting for the traffic light to change. And I turned to her and say, “I’ve only been at the bank for six months, are you sure I’m ready?” And she just looked back at me, almost in disbelief. And she did something for me that no other human being has done, probably one of the most powerful moments that I’ve been witness to. She gave me the opportunity to turn back time. And she told me, “Take the self-doubt out of your mind because I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think you could do it. So I’m going to ask you again and you’re going to answer me again.” And so now, the message I tell everyone is yes, we all have our vulnerabilities. In that moment, mine were that I was young, I was new to the banking world. There’s a laundry list that goes beside all of that too.

Anilisa:

But what we have to remember is our vulnerabilities are our power. And those factors are exactly what motivated me to take on the challenge and hit it out at the park.

Jas:

I couldn’t agree more with you, Anilisa, on the power in vulnerability. It’s actually one of the topics, if I could do a speech to my alma mater, it would be on that very topic itself. And that just goes to show how much we experienced that, right? So when you’re doubting yourself, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else has felt that way. And my goal in realizing that is to break down that barrier and show teams, but especially women, that self-doubt is normal. Even the most senior leaders experience it, but it’s what you do with that self-doubt that matters. So I’ll share a really quick example. As a first year partner, I was asked to serve as a national practice leader as I was completing my first year. That meant leading a growing group of professionals, many of whom were older or more experienced than me. And the impostor syndrome went from chronic to acute when I was asked. I didn’t even have a response. And the thought was, “Do I belong? Should I be here?”

Jas:

And what I learned from that experience was when we’re open about our vulnerability, it creates an environment where people can build one another up, support one another, talk through it and use it as a strength. The biggest realization from an impostor perspective is self-doubt. It doesn’t have to be crippling, you can actually use it as a differentiator. And a couple of things that I’ll share on that is, the first is just remember, everyone goes through it. So humanizing that self-doubt, acknowledging your experience, validating it can be super empowering for yourself. And it’s the example I think of is, much like an introvert that might hold back from speaking in a meeting, someone who’s struggling with self doubt might be quiet, but they might also be then the best listener in the room, picking up on a lot when you’re keenly tuned in. When you doubt yourself, the other thing you might do is invest a lot in terms of preparing. So that can also set you apart in terms of your peers, and these are strengths.

Jas:

The way I see it is playing to them. As you work through the struggle, you won’t be disappointed. The other kind of quick tips on this is, the biggest is talking about that feeling with others around you. So talking about whether it’s impostor, self-doubt, nervous energy. What you’re going through, you can pick up tips and experiences from those that have been there too. And that can feel good. It really does help.

Jas:

The last one is it’s sticking to the facts. And I’ve shared this quite a bit with my team. Wherever you’re at on your career journey, you didn’t get there by accident. You got there through hard work, talent, mentors, sponsors. Reminding yourself of that when you’re struggling is key. So just thinking about the feedback. In a simple way, I’ve done that is I’ve gone as far as to keep a little happy folder on my desktop so that if I feel that self-doubt is creeping up, creeping in, rather, I can flip through it, look at feedback or awards. And what that does is it reminds me I’ve earned a seat at the table, I have something important to say, and I can achieve it.

Haritha:

Jas, I love how you’ve given such amazing practical tips for women to overcome impostor syndrome, and how we can convert that self-doubt and those vulnerabilities into our strengths. Thank you for sharing that. But it’s so inspiring to see and speak to such bold and fearless women leaders like yourselves who aren’t afraid of being or showing your vulnerability. I want to shift gears to talk about mentorship and sponsorship. We all know how important mentoring is to career success. And we also know there’s a key difference between the two. Mentors speak with an employee while sponsors speak for an employee. And in this current remote reality where we don’t have as many run-ins and interactions but senior leaders… Oh, I miss those water cooler chats and Starbucks friends. So in this environment, how do we continue nurturing these important interactions and relationships?

Jas:

Yeah. I fundamentally believe that every step I take on my career journey is an opportunity to move someone else forward along with me. So for me, this isn’t about paving the way for others, but it’s rather widening the road. And at every level and every milestone, I’ve looked around myself to see who can I enable? Where is there an opportunity for another woman because of this next step? How can I move beyond mentorship to truly sponsoring others, put skin in the game by introducing them to others, inviting them to something, including them on a high profile engagement? And that’s because I know what it’s like to be looking for a mentor or sponsor in an organization. Now that we’re working remotely, Haritha, a lot of those organic moments you just described that allow you to connect with people, they have become harder. So some of the ways that I work to find mentors previously, they actually still resonate in the remote working world.

Jas:

Couple of things. One is ask people who know you what they suggest. So my mentors and sponsors played an incredible role in my career. And I can honestly say, I wouldn’t be here without them. I found many of them by asking people in my own network a really simple question, “Who do you think might be a good mentor for me to reach out to?” The people I found that knew me well and are familiar with my goals, they knew in my own networks who, and they were open to introducing me to others. So that’s one great way to tap into opportunities even without the benefit of running into people in the hallways and in the office.

Jas:

The second that when I look back, I realized, was reaching out to men in particular. I was surprised by how many male colleagues have told me that they wanted to reach out to support a woman colleague but were worried that they somehow offend them or say the wrong thing. There are a lot of allies out there for women. So sometimes it’s just putting it out there and asking if they’d be open to a formal mentorship, a virtual coffee to talk about career growth opportunities, and that can get the ball rolling. So I’d say don’t hold back there.

Jas:

And the last is considering people who bring different perspectives. And this is really touching on that diversity of thought, which is really important when you’re looking to understand where you want to go in your career. So cast a wide net, don’t limit yourself to people who do the same kind of job or work, or in the same part of the business as you are. And you might just be surprised by what you learn.

Anilisa:

What Jas has called out there is just such incredible advice. And as both of you have called out, it’s more important now than ever before as we shift from nurturing our relationships from that organic hallway to a much more intentional virtual world. And the question that I hear all the time is, “What does the virtual world mean to my career development? COVID has disrupted so much of my life. Has it disrupted my ability to grow in my career as well?” And let’s be honest about it, it’s a legitimate concern. It is absolutely more intimidating to email someone than it was organically bumping into them. You can’t read body language, you pour over the words that you write, does my email strike the right tone? And if you’re like me, you’re probably worried about intruding on someone else’s busy schedule.

Anilisa:

So perhaps the only thing that I’ll add to the incredible advice that Jas has called out there is just to put yourself on the other side of receiving an email like that. How would you react if you got an email from somebody saying that they would really like your help or your insight or your input? And that might alleviate some of the worry and to a certain extent self-doubt that you’re putting on yourself before reaching out.

Haritha:

Yes. I’ve personally seen that cold emails are less frowned upon today than they were before. I think because everyone’s in the same boat and it comes back to that emotion of empathy, right? Also this, those elevator chats where you’ve got 20 seconds to catch up with someone you’ve not met in a while, and you really get excited just to meet them after so long. So what I’ve started doing is putting those elevator chats, those water cooler chats in my calendar, making a conscious effort to keep them up, because it’s all about the relationships that you continue to build. So thank you both for sharing those tips. I’m going to bring this up again. You were both recent recipients of the Top 40 Under 40, and one of the common themes in the 2020 honor roll was that there were many first-generation Canadian immigrants. But at the same time, we know that Canada has also got this immigrant wage gap that is costing our economy close to 50 billion in GDP. So I’d like to hear about your own immigrant experience and what it means to be a first-generation immigrant and a woman.

Jas:

50 billion, Haritha. That really brings it home. In terms of the first generation journey, for me, I think it comes down to communication. It’s really important to everything we’ve talked about today, but especially this question. I’m a first-generation Canadian who now leads a national practice, and I believe it’s one of my fundamental responsibilities to talk about my journey, to open up the lines of communication, to show others not only what’s possible but the challenges I faced and the ways I overcame them to intimately succeed. So in my experience, that’s meant balancing some of the cultural norms I grew up with. For example, respecting my elders, having grown up in a multi-generational family, against the expectations of the corporate world, which is challenged, speaking up, use your voice, have a contrarian or a differing opinion. Now that wasn’t easy for me.

Jas:

So I’ll share a little quick example here where it really came to life. I was a first year manager and one of my mentor’s partners asked me to step in and lead a C-suite client session for him at the last minute. I was only supposed to attend it and now I was supposed to lead it because he was going to be joining in person but had to fly out. And now he’d be dialing in. I should have been thrilled at this ask, but I was intimidated and nervous. And that was the pivotal moment that I started to figure out how to translate the cultural values so ingrained in me with the very real need to lead, challenge, assert myself in the working world.

Jas:

And so that’s something I’ll always be working on in the back of my mind. I’m vocal about sharing these examples, I did at the power-up session for RBC national calls where I’m presenting my peers and other senior partners. And I’ve learned to work with that. It’s honestly my big hope that by sharing the struggle, I’ll be able to give other women the confidence to navigate similar challenges that stem from growing up in different cultures. I celebrate the vulnerability and I celebrate that Canada is this amazing solid bowl of intersectionality. The last I’ll share here is taking an authentic approach and trust in someone’s journey and sharing a bit about your own can be the conversation that takes down barriers and moves people forward.

Anilisa:

I can relate to so much of that, Jas. I immigrated to Canada when I was a young kid. I think that makes my son the first generation Canadian in the family. I only became a Canadian citizen about 10 years ago. And I remember the citizenship ceremony so vividly, how proud, what a proud moment it was for everybody in the room. And it’s interesting that you touch on the point about vulnerabilities because, Haritha, when I heard this question, my mind immediately went back to our vulnerabilities being our power. And we have so much that we can learn from each other. I love the word celebrate there as well. And whether that’s because of different geographical backgrounds, the cultures in which we grew up in, gender or sexual diversity and so on, it really, truly is a beautiful thing.

Anilisa:

A very good friend of mine has said a couple of times, “People hate what makes them scared. People are scared by what makes them uncomfortable. People are uncomfortable by what they don’t know.” And what I take away from that is get to know people who are different, appreciate those differences. And so today, I consider myself exceptionally privileged to be a Canadian immigrant who, years later, is now in the position to, I’m going to use your words, Jas, widen the road, create the green lights, open the doors for others. In RBC, we have such incredible infrastructure, things like advancing women in leadership, women in capital markets and so on that allow this to happen across the organization as a real priority. And for me personally, I see it as my obligation. I see it as my responsibility to constantly challenge myself on hiring differently, hiring from unexpected places, people who might not be the obvious choice. But that diversity of thought that we built, that we come together, that we create is a key success factor to what we accomplish.

Haritha:

Jas, Anilisa, I am a new immigrant myself. And I can relate to a lot of this. And I’ve had my own challenges. I’ve always been a new immigrant. Ever since I left my home country, India, every country I’ve lived in, I’ve tried to settle in, I’ve tried to fit in. But I’ve realized that it’s about just being you and that’s taken, it’s a process. It does not happen overnight. And the journey is tough. So it’s really nice and inspiring to see leaders such as yourself being so open about this because it motivates others and new immigrants who are coming into the country in millions over the next couple of years to say that, “You know what? It’s okay to be me.”

Anilisa:

You don’t need to fit in. Fitting in is this thing that, I don’t know, we make up in our own heads. You don’t need to fit in. You need to be you. You need to be your whole you.

Haritha:

Yeah. Thanks, Anilisa. And Jas, I love the reference of the salad bowl. I’ve heard Canada being a melting pot, a mosaic, but I think salad bowl is unique. I’m probably going to use it in future conversations.

Jas:

Yeah, I think salad bowl is one of the most beautiful parts of this nation and also what sets us apart from other countries globally.

Haritha:

So our time together unfortunately comes to an end. And this has been a fantastic conversation with so many tips and takeaways. So on that final note, what is a parting thought that you want to leave our listeners with on this International Women’s Day?

Anilisa:

I’m going to keep this short and sweet, share a piece of advice that I received from one of my mentors, one of those people who is on my personal board of directors who, when I was overwhelmed and pulled in different directions, immediately settled me with this one thought which was, “Think less about what you want to do and think more about who you want to be.” And for me, that was stepping up to be my best when things were at their worst.

Jas:

Anilisa, I think we have a similar board of directors or the same one, Kevin. I received the same advice from our dear friend, Kevin, in the midst of the pandemic. And I have to say that it’s that one advice that I keep going back to. It resonates and I keep thinking of often, especially when things are getting tough. In terms of any tips or tricks on this International Women’s Day, I have to tell you that I love this year’s theme, ‘Choose to Challenge’. It feels right to me. It speaks to the choices we make every single day. And I’m in a position where I can choose to challenge every single day. All of us can in our own ways and in our own roles. To be honest, I think that it’s a skill or a tip I hold closest right now. Wherever I see the opportunity to generate challenge, I choose to challenge. The status quo, the people at the table, the assumptions we make, that’s more than a skill, it’s a responsibility and it’s one I take seriously.

Jas:

We should have a culture where women don’t need to emulate characteristics of men to succeed, but a culture where women’s intrinsic qualities are celebrated. That’s what I’d like to share with our listeners today.

Haritha:

I’m a huge fan of Maya Angelou. And when I started off this episode, I shared one of her quotes. But I’d also like to share another one, which really ties in so well with what both of you said. And it goes, “I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” And both of you have said, “Be you” throughout this conversation. This conversation is one for the books. Anilisa, Jas, it’s been a privilege. And so incredible listening to your stories, your passion and commitment to empowering women, and to choose to challenge every single day. So I really thank you, on behalf of Ascend Canada, for your time today.

Anilisa:

Our absolute pleasure, Haritha. Just to throw that right back at you, thank you to everything you put in to this webcast, to all of the podcasts that you and your team organized. It’s incredible. It’s a real benefit to all of us.

Jas:

Yes. And I echo everything Anilisa said. It was an honor. And really, really grateful to be supporting Ascend, being a part of it. And thank you for all the work that you and the team have put in.

Haritha:

So to all our women listeners, continue to be you. And to our men listeners, continue to be strong allies, and choose to challenge. Folks, thanks for listening. This is your host, Haritha, signing off. Stay safe and stay tuned.